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Why 'Carbon Literacy' is the next 'Financial Literacy'
If we do not measure, we cannot improve, and therefore cannot meet ambitious climate goals.
Financial literacy, such as budgeting and investing, is the first step towards managing money and breaking down larger financial goals into more tangible actions. The growing field of ‘carbon literacy’ follows a similar idea: there is a global carbon budget which can only be met using tools to measure, track, and reduce emissions. Companies in particular may also find that even a basic carbon literacy can help spot areas to protect the bottom line, such as through savings on wasted energy.
🌎 Tell me more about this global carbon budget and how is it measured?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the atmospheric gasses known as a ‘Greenhouse Gas’ because the particles trap solar heat, and contribute to global warming. The earth has a global ‘carbon budget’ which refers to the equilibrium amount of carbon which can be released and still absorbed by natural processes such as ocean, vegetation, and soil sequestration.
Carbon dioxide quantities are measured in parts per million (ppm). Just before the Industrial Revolution in the 1850s, global carbon levels were at 350ppm. However, rapid industrial activity and fossil fuel burning has vastly accelerated carbon dioxide buildup, and today NASA estimates that carbon dioxide levels measure 419ppm. Essentially, we have blown our carbon budget.
Fact: Carbon levels for the globe have been monitored at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii since 1958. Its position, at an elevation of 3397 meters and away from most human and vegetation influences, makes it uniquely able to calculate how atmospheric carbon levels have changed over time.
🧮 So what problem is Carbon Literacy solving for?
To have any hope of reversing this trend and getting back to a carbon equilibrium, we need to have a better understanding at individual, corporate, and national levels of the math of how to get there.
So that is where carbon literacy comes in.
“Carbon literacy is about understanding where and how we emit carbon dioxide emissions in our daily activities, and where we can improve. This is how we build the steps of getting to a low carbon world,” says Michelle Li, founder of Clever Carbon, a platform helping individuals measure their carbon footprint based on location and lifestyle factors. “If you start with education and benchmarking, you can always find ways to close the gap.
For example, at a global level, we know that our carbon levels are currently at nearly 420ppm and if we get to 450ppm we will surpass the 1.5 degree change and potentially even warming of up to to 3.1°C . We need as a planet to get back to 350ppm, and we have a limited time to get there.”
The other challenge that Clever Carbon is solving for, is a lack of dialogue around carbon emissions.
“Individuals often have a shame around tracking and disclosing their carbon footprint, either they don’t want to know or they’re not ready to make sacrifices. But by having a baseline, you can bring down your own measurement, across diet, transport, fashion, even banking. And then you get more people measuring their carbon and being open about the changes they are trying to make, which helps more people do the same. I focus on teaching them in a more lighthearted way, and keep things happy and fun because then more people are likely to participate.
Image source: Clever Carbon
If you educate people, you can empower them. And with a rigorous understanding of the carbon equation at an individual level, we can better hold large companies to account - for example, when will Unilever remove more carbon than it produces?.”
Carbon literacy is also a key tool for Ecolytics, a platform which helps businesses measure, improve, and showcase their impact. The measurement piece of the platform includes carbon accounting, a term for measuring the carbon footprint of a business.
“Getting started with sustainability can be difficult for companies,” says Hazel Horvath, CEO. “With many emissions sources, it's hard to know where to start. So while they might have a big vision for the future, they need help to see the concrete steps to get there.
“Mapping out their carbon emissions helps them to identify simple steps to reduce their carbon
footprint, starting with the low hanging fruit then moving toward what may seem aspirational at first. Having that carbon literacy helps companies make choices with sustainability in mind, and look for the higher quality standards and certifications when searching for their own providers. And of course they can then start to compete with their competitors to show their carbon reductions.”
💸 Ecolytics is also keen to point out how carbon literacy can help with financial savings too.
“To get buy-in for spending time on sustainability, it helps to show economic benefits. Luckily, basic carbon literacy can help spot areas to protect the bottom line, with most direct connection being energy efficiency. But after carbon accounting, it is easier to move onto other areas where money is lost in the value chain, such as waste (disposal) and water costs. And then companies can show how they are getting a Return on Investment (ROI) on the time they have spent doing this.”
If we do not measure, we cannot improve, and therefore cannot meet ambitious climate goals. Increasing carbon literacy is therefore a fundamental first step, however right now it is not widespread enough to be deployed to its full potential. This must therefore become a priority action for those who are committing to lower carbon emissions, or else their words will literally become hot air.
Disclaimer: This author’s carbon footprint will be an estimated 12.1 tonnes for the year 2022.